The Spiritual Power Of Saying “I Don’t Know”

This is Marsha’s story.  It is also my story. 

It is a story that illuminates the meaning of Torah.

Although we traditionally define the Torah as  the opening five books of the Bible, we should not limit it to that in our minds.  It should instead be thought of as the wisdom one gains when walking through life in conversation with sacred texts and tradition.  For me that discussion begins with my Judaism, its books and its teachers.  And so this is that story of my journey.

Twelve years ago I received a phone call from a good friend who said the following, “Rabbi, my next door neighbor is dying from brain cancer.  I saw her husband recently who told me he does not know what to do.  So I told him you would know.  Please call him and help him.”  I responded, “How am I going to fix this?”  She said, “You will know what to do.”  I doubted her words but nonetheless wrote down the number.

I called Jamie the next day.  He spoke about feeling lost.  He apologized for not belonging to the synagogue.  I asked if he would like me to come to the hospital for a visit.  The next day I drove to Sloan Kettering.  Eventually I found the hospital room.  I introduced myself to Jamie and his son Evan who rose to greet me.  I turned to look at the bed.  There I saw Marsha for the first time.  She was already hovering between life and death.  And there as well was her daughter Amanda lying in the same bed, with her arms wrapped tightly around her mother.  Amanda looked up at me and said, “Why is this happening?”  And I blurted out, “I don’t know.”  I did not know what else to say.  All those years of reading theology and studying Jewish philosophy abandoned me in an instant. 

They shared with me some stories about Marsha.  I listened.  They spoke about their pain.   I said very little.  They complained about the injustice of Marsha’s fate.  I offered a prayer.  I gave them my card and told them they could call me any time. 

I remember walking along Manhattan’s streets and thinking to myself, “I have failed.  They asked me a question, and I could not provide an answer. I could offer no healing.”  Jamie called a few days later to say Marsha had died.  He asked if I would be willing to officiate at her funeral.  I said yes and arranged a time to meet with the family.  When I arrived to their home they offered me thanks for visiting the hospital.  “We were so grateful for your words,” they said.

I must have returned that comment with a quizzical look because then Amanda said, “It gave me great strength when you said, ‘I don’t know.’  Every other rabbi and every other hospital chaplain who visited us offered answers about why this was happening.  And every answer made us feel worse.  We felt like there was something wrong with us because we did not believe their answers or find their suggestions compelling.  How can you believe words like ‘Everything happens for a reason’ when all you want is to have your mother for a few more years or even just a few more months?  You were the only one who said, ‘I don’t know.’  For the first time we felt that if the rabbi does not know the answer then we don’t have to know.  For the first time we felt that our feelings were legitimate.  Your ‘I don’t know’ gave us strength.”

In that moment, and on that day, I found my Torah.

Around the same time I began studying with Rabbi David Hartman.  From him I discovered the verses of this Torah.  I learned that my Jewish tradition is not about answers but instead about questions.  It is about how to live with inconsistencies and imperfections.  People think that religion is about answers.  The fundamentalist varieties are of course about such exactitudes.  But this is their very seduction.  Religion is instead about how to live with questions.  Certainties remain false prophets.  We must come to feel at home with mystery.  We must embrace questions.

My rabbi then walked me through the pages of the Talmud, a book that I wished I felt was my book, but until that moment seemed out of reach and a mystery.  People misunderstand the Talmud.  They often think it codifies Jewish answers, that it quantifies Jewish law.  It is instead a record of generations of teachers’ journeys.  It offers an invitation to walk with them, to ask questions alongside them.  The Talmud’s very first word is in fact a question: “May-amaitah, when can we say the evening prayer?” Here is the central Jewish text and it begins with a question mark.  Open any page and you will find questions upon questions.  It is at home with discussion and debate.  No one answer is codified in its pages.  From Rabbi Hartman I learned to be unafraid in asking questions.  I learned to be courageous in asking why. 

That is Judaism’s most important teaching.  Our answer to life’s perplexities is not certitudes but instead to affirm life and its questions.  It is to embrace the imperfections.  How else can you explain the Talmudic discussion about the blessing for a meal?  And this is among my favorite texts and one that I can still hear my teacher recite.  The rabbis ask what constitutes a meal.  The majority answers: “K’zayit–an olive’s worth.”  A meal is an olive.  On the surface this is of course an absurd response.  One olive is not a meal.  And yet they argued that we nonetheless say a blessing when eating such a small and unsatisfactory amount.  We affirm and thank God for the imperfect, for the unsatisfying, for the incomplete.  We say a blessing even when we are still hungry.

That is Judaism.  It is a faith at home with questions and imperfections.  This is the faith I crave. I want a faith that does not offer clichés and platitudes in place of seriousness and struggles.  I seek a courageous faith.  I strive for honesty.  We gain strength because we are surrounded by each other, because we hold each other up, because together we can tackle any issue and ask any question.  We do not gain strength by answers.  Instead we embrace community.  And we affirm questions. 

A few months following Marsha’s death, Jamie joined our community, and although he no longer even lives anywhere near the synagogue, he has remained a loyal member.  He makes the long trek to our congregation’s Shabbat services nearly every June to say kaddish for Marsha.  A little over two years ago I had the pleasure of officiating at Amanda’s wedding.  There were a great many hugs and a lot of smiles.  There were of course too many tears for such an occasion.  Nonetheless we danced, we sang and we celebrated.  One year ago Amanda gave birth to a son.  And Jamie tells me that he is now certain about one thing: his grandson Miles is a genius. 

I don’t imagine that the questions, or even the pain, have disappeared.  But it is clear that a measure of fullness has found its way back into their hearts.  Today it is evident that blessings emerge more readily from their lips–even if at times it is only an olive’s worth. 

All I can hope and pray for is that one day I might have the privilege of learning even just a small measure of Torah with Miles and that we might have the chance to journey alongside one another.  And together we might even smile at the thought of the woman who neither of us ever knew, but who brought us together nonetheless. 

And perhaps we might even revel in the questions that continue to linger within our pages.   

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